Old Norse sagas such as Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders have been long been considered among the most important sources of information about relations between Vikings and Native Americans. But new research suggests that accounts about a mysterious island known as Hvitramannaland are also other descriptions of the New World and its inhabitants.
In the article “Hvitramannaland and other fictional islands in the sea”, Else Mundal examines references in saga accounts about the island, which was described as being six days and nights of sailing west of Ireland. Other accounts suggest that it was close to Vinland, which is now considered to be somewhere along the eastern coast of North America.
The various accounts describe interactions that people had on the island, such as in the Eyrbyggja saga, where an Icelandic ship drifted off course and sailed southwest from the island. Eventually “they saw land – it was a large land, but they did not know what land what land it was. They sailed into a harbour and landed, and suddenly they were surrounded by a large crowd of men who they thought might speak Irish. The men on the island were very unfriendly. They attacked them, captured them, tied them up, and brought them onto land. They were taken to a meeting and they understood that some would kill them at once and others would make them slaves. Then an old man, followed by others, came riding towards them, and the people at the assembly greeted them as their master. He spoke to the Icelanders in their own language and was very interested in news from Iceland….” The man was able to get the Icelandic crew freed, and the saga speculates this person was Bjorn briedvikingakappi, who was forced to flee Iceland years earlier.
Icelandic and Irish medieval literature includes many accounts of voyages, and descriptions of islands that have fantastic elements. But Mundal argues that “it seems reasonable that the descriptions of some islands may be based on real experiences at sea.” She adds that “in my opinion the picture of an island (or a land) in the Atlantic Ocean with a hostile population who wanted to kill or enslave intruders reflects the Norsemen’s meeting with Native Americans, which may have been a more frightening experience than the sagas admit.”
The article appears in the book Isolated Islands in Medieval Nature, Culture and Mind, edited by Torstein Jorgensen and Gerhard Jaritz, Published this month by Central European University Press, the book contains eleven essays that examine how the island in the Middle Ages was to be isolated from the rest of the world, not only by water, but also by other borders.
Else Mundal has been a professor of Old Norse philology at the University of Bergen since 1994, and has done extensive research on Icelandic sagas.